Is that a tear or just a double bass getting into your eye?

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CIGARETTE advertisements these days are not so much wise as positively devious. You don't even see cigarettes in them, for a start. You might get clever punning references to the name of the cigarette as in campaigns by Silk Cut and John Player Special, but you don't get a picture of a long white thing with a filter on the end. It has become so that if you see an ad that you can't understand, or in which you can't spot a product, you automatically assume that it's a cigarette ad.

That's how I know there is a new cigarette ad out at the moment. It appeared full-page in many papers, including this one, last week. It shows a street in what looks like a French town, completely empty in the clean grey/blue light of either dawn or dusk, with three people walking away from the camera. The one on the right is an elegant young woman. The one in the middle is a plumpish, balding man. The one on the left is tall and carrying a double bass over his shoulder, so you can't see even the back of his head. It's totally unreal. That's how you know it's an ad. Nobody in it is smoking. That's how you know it's a cigarette ad. Examination of the print below the picture reveals the presence of the word 'Rothmans'. This only tends to reinforce one's feeling that we may have a cigarette ad on our hands here.

But what kind of a cigarette ad? The three people seem to have no obvious relationship. There are two men, one of whom is carrying a double bass, and a girl. The two romantic images (young man, young girl) are on the outside, separated by the squatter, balding one in the middle. What does this tell us? Are these three models who agreed to appear in a cigarette ad only if they could not be identified, and therefore had to have their backs to the camera?

Or it might just be a hangover from the old 'You're Never Alone With A Strand' days. Maybe these are three misfits, three loners, three outcasts, all together in the same photograph. Maybe, the creative team thought, if we put oddballs together in the same picture, side by side, we'd get across the feeling of individuality without the misanthropy. After all, bass players tend to be loners . . .

And here is the clue. The bass player. If you look at him closely, you will see (if you are a bass player) that there is something very wrong here. No bass player would ever carry his instrument that way. If you carry it over your shoulder, you put a lot of strain on it, and if you hold it by the bridge, that delicate bit of fretted wood that holds the strings up in just the right place, you would be putting unbearable strain on it. Not only that, but the bass has no cover on it. Whoever the guy is, carrying the bass, he is no bass player. He is someone who is going to cause maximum damage to a double bass. Most bass players, seeing this ad, would give up smoking straightaway in indignation.

The only guy who would carry a bass around like this is the props man on a television commercial shoot, someone taking the bass from one shot to another. And suddenly it all clicks into place. These three people, the three aimless, unrelated people in the empty French street, are the producer, creative director and props man of the Rothmans ad. They're desperate for a new image for cigarettes. They're wandering through the streets of this very expensive town in France. They've got a double bass with them, because they've read a market survey which says that saxophones are now out as a sex symbol.

'Let's give double basses a go,' somebody had said at a meeting the previous week.

'Double basses? You're crazy] Who'd fall in love with a double bass player?'

'Oh, I don't know,' says the sexy lady creative director, who had a passionate fling with a bass player once. 'There's something about bass players . . .'

They glance at her curiously.

'Well, we'll take one with us anyway,' says the producer. 'And a harp and a trombone, too, just to be safe. What say we all go over to France at the weekend and brainstorm this one through?'

That's it. Those three people in the ad are the people who are making the ad. They go over on location, without a script, without an idea. Someone takes a shot of them in the dusk. Someone else says: 'Hey, we could use that for the ad]' Someone else says: 'But what does it mean? Who are these people meant to be?' And someone else says: 'It doesn't mean anything. Cigarette ads don't mean anything. These people are just a mystery. That's what cigarette ads are meant to be. Meaningless mysteries.'

I rest my case.

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